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Chevron Feels the Summer Heat in Richmond, CA

The Progressive, 8/12/13

By Tina Gerhardt, August 11, 2013

Last Saturday, August 3, a broad coalition of labor, indigenous, health and environmental justice groups marched to the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, marking the one-year anniversary of the explosion and fire that sent smoke billowing into the air and 15,000 area residents to the hospital with respiratory problems. Nineteen refinery workers were lucky to escape the incident alive.

The California Nurses Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility, including many who treated those affected by last year's explosion, marched.

The family-friendly march attracted more than 2,500 people, from toddlers to a ninety-year-old grandmother. Many demonstrators were carrying sunflowers and some were playing music. Leading the event was the Bay Area contingent of Idle No More, an indigenous group at the forefront of protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Over 200 people were arrested at the refinery's gates for trespassing.

The August 3 demonstration forms part of 350.org's nation-wide Summer Heat campaign, which has mobilized local actions to protest the fossil fuel industry. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, said, “Fossil fuel is dirty in particular ways in all the communities fighting these local battles, but it’s dirty in exactly the same way in the atmosphere surrounding our planet."

The protest sought to raise awareness about how the fossil fuel industry impacts local communities and environment. Richmond is a predominately African-American and Latin-American community of mostly working and middle class incomes.

In the aftermath of the massive fire, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration slapped the multibillion dollar corporation with a nearly $1 million fine for 11 violations. It is the maximum allowable fine and the largest in California state history.

The multi-billion-dollar corporation was found by the Chemical Safety Board to be directly responsible for last year’s fire, because it refused to repair a sulfur-corroded pipe that burst and sparked the fire. According to Mayor McLaughlin, the pipe had worn to the thinness of a dime. Chevron itself had known about the pipe for ten years.

Last week, the City of Richmond issued a lawsuit against Chevron. According to Climate Progress, the 39-page complaint accuses the company of "willful and conscious disregard of public safety" and states that the explosion and fire resulted from "years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs." It cited 14 additional instances since 1989, in which Chevron has allegedly released toxins into the air.

On Monday, Chevron pleaded no contest to six criminal misdemeanor charges related to the fire, and to labor standards and environmental regulations. Chevron agreed to additional oversight and to pay $2 million in fines and restitution as part of a plea deal with state and county prosecutors. According to Grist.org, funds will also go to local agencies that responded, to a local job training program, to medical claims and to air quality fines.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the company faces additional fines and lawsuits, including potential federal charges.

Andrés Soto of Communities for a Better Environment, and one of the organizers of the protest, said, “The Chevron Richmond refinery is the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in California.” He added: “These gases travel over the Carquinez Straits and into the Central Valley, which is intensely polluted. They contribute in a very major way to accelerating climate change all over the planet.”

Affected peoples from Ecuador took out full page ads in local newspapers expressing their solidarity with the people of Richmond. In Ecuador, Chevron dumped 18.5 gallons of highly toxic waste into the streams and rivers in the rainforests in the eastern Oriente region and was slapped with a $18 billion judgment in February 2011.

Chevron's refinery in Richmond was established in 1902, three years before the City of Richmond was incorporated. It is the city's largest employer and one of the country's busiest refineries, processing over 240,000 barrels a day.

As Andres Soto put it in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, "Chevron basically ran this place as a company town."

Chevron has been reined in through the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which has had the majority of the city government since 2008 and of which current Green Party mayor Gayle McLaughlin is a part.

Marking the changing tide at the demonstration, Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition said, "This ain't no damn company town - this is the people's town."

Soto added: "Chevron is ultimately going to have to deal with us because we can't allow them to control our lives here in Richmond. We're going to run our local politics and we're going to drive Chevron's people out of government and return the power to the people here in Richmond."

As awareness of climate change and how the fossil fuel industry contributes to it grows in tandem with alliances between environmental justice and labor groups, Chevron is coming to experience the summer heat.

Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic who covers energy policy, climate negotiations and related direct actions. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Climate Progress, Grist, The Nation, The Progressive and the Washington Monthly.

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